Hopeful Monsters and Monstrous Code

N. Katherine Hayles writes, “Electronic literature is a ‘hopeful monster’ (as geneticists call adaptive mutations) composed of parts taken from diverse traditions that may not always fit neatly together.  Hybrid by nature, it comprises a ‘trading zone’ (as Peter Galison calls it in a different context) in which different vocabularies, expertises, and expectations come together to see what might emerge from their intercourse” (4).

These lines are my favorite from Hayles’s book.  I especially like the way the form of this remark mirrors its content.  In commenting on the hybridity of electronic literature, Hayles offers a hybrid sort of criticism herself, borrowing (in two relatively short sentences) from geneticists, a physicist, and possibly even alluding to the deconstructive monstrous birth that emerges at the close of Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.”  The opening chapter of Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary is a theoretical portmanteau, an only sometimes explicit mashing together of various takes on the field of electronic literature.  And the entirety of her text, like the electronic literature she discusses, is itself a hopeful monster, drawing from various disciplines to make its (sometimes shifting and unstable) claims.

Later, Hayles writes, “Unlike a print book, electronic text literally cannot be accessed without running the code.  Critics and scholars of digital art and literature should therefore properly consider the source code to be part of the work” (35).  Hayles remarks elsewhere that the temptation of reading the screen as a page is especially seductive” (24).

My questions about this remark are:  As critics or theorists of digital media, should we analyze the screen or the code that produces it?  Of course, it seems important to do both, as Hayles points out.  But can’t we also ask this of the body that reads, views, or interacts with digital media?  Should we read the physical body or the cultural scripts that produce it?  My issue, then, with the argument Hayles makes about code is in her suggesting that this is an argument unique to the study of digital texts, which she says are “unlike print book[s]” in this respect.  I find myself wondering if there isn’t ultimately code (of one sort or another) beneath everything?  Isn’t language itself code?  What’s the difference between code interpreted by a computer and displayed on a screen and code interpreted by us and displayed in our minds?  And what about the typography of a print book?  And graphic design?  And the chemical composition of a book’s pages that make for a certain weight and texture as we hold the book in our hands?  The words of a print book might exist on a page when the author writes them, but this is not (typically) the page we read.  So, couldn’t the page be considered output much like the screen of a digital text?  And what about the cultural codes that heavily influence the practices of reading and interpreting (any sort of text)?

I’m not disagreeing with Hayles’s assertion that we ought to pay careful attention to both the digital text and the code that runs it.  The imperative, though, doesn’t feel all that unique to digital texts.  In the field of film studies, for example, much attention has been paid to the processes of the medium itself and how those processes influence filmmaking and film spectatorship, sometimes at the expense of paying close attention to the meanings and experience of specific films.  In composition studies, the rhetorical shape of a work is often privileged over its content.  These aren’t meant to be one-to-one comparisons.  The relationship between code and output in a digital text is admittedly different.  I find myself clutching tightly to the content of the page in a printed text and the content of the screen in a filmic text, interested in and attentive to the various codes that produce them but determined not to let those codes be a distraction.  When it comes to digital literature, my instinct is to clutch the output on the computer screen in much the same way.  Maybe, I’m clutching too tightly.  Perhaps, the code of digital literature will reveal itself to be the hopeful monster Hayles speaks of, gnashing its teeth as it spews the masticated flesh of the text onto the screen.